Mars, meteors and a mission to the sun: What stargazers can look forward to in 2020
Mars expected to dominate the space stories of 2020
The past year brought plenty of milestones in space and astronomy: we found the oldest known Earth rock — on the moon; Neptune gained a new moon; Saturn added 20; NASA announced a return to the moon (there was a lot on moons). And, in what was likely the biggest space story of the year, a black hole was imaged for the first time.
While there's no crystal ball to tell us what the next amazing new discoveries will be in 2020, there are some events that you can look forward to in space. Here are just a few to mark on your astronomy calendars for 2020.
Due to the cold and frequent cloud cover, winter isn't the best time to enjoy meteor showers, which is a pity since two pretty great ones occur during the season.
In January, we'll be coming out of one such shower — the Geminids — and entering the second: the Quadrantids.
The Quadrantid meteor shower runs from Dec. 27 to Jan. 10, but peaks on the night of Jan. 3-4.
At its peak, under ideal conditions, this shower can produce more than 100 meteors an hour. However, the peak is short-lived, just six hours long.
While meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors originate (called the "radiant"), the Quadrantids are an exception, though there once was a constellation named Quadrans Muralis. But you can find the radiant near the constellation Boötes which rises in the northeast after midnight.
On Feb. 5, the Solar Orbiter will set off on a trip to the sun.
The joint mission between the European Space Agency and NASA will study our nearest star, including its atmosphere and solar wind, which can affect things here on Earth.
And beginning in the middle of February, there will be a trail of planets awaiting people who are early risers.
Around 6:30 a.m., you can look to the southeast and see three planets lined up in the dawn sky.
First is Saturn, low on the horizon, followed by Jupiter, which will be hard to miss as it's the second brightest planet in our sky, and then finally Mars, which will be a red "star" (don't mix it up with Antares, an actual red star, which will be visible in the southern sky, to the right of Mars).
But something different will be happening over the next few months: Mars will start to move backwards in relation to Saturn and Jupiter. This is referred to as "retrograde" motion. By April, the Red Planet will be on the other side of Saturn, further to the east.
Continuing on with the three planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and a thin crescent moon will gather in the southeastern sky in the early morning on March 18 around 6 a.m. low on the horizon.
By the end of July, the trio will have made their way into the evening sky, rising just after midnight.
Once again, we're headed for Mars.
Though it'll still be a while before we see humans on Mars, the planet is home to a whole robot race, if you will. And on July 17, a new spacecraft, Mars 2020, will launch on its way to join the pack (interesting fact: there are currently 12 spacecraft on the surface, with just two — Curiosity and Mars InSight — still active on the planet).
Should Mars 2020 launch on July 17 (the launch window runs until Aug. 5), the rover — which looks very much like Curiosity — will arrive on Feb. 18, 2021.
What makes this mission particularly special is that it will be the first spacecraft specifically equipped to search for signs of past life on Mars. It will also collect and store samples from the planet in preparation for a future sample-return mission to Earth.
You may already know about OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft in orbit around the asteroid Bennu.
OSIRIS-REx's mission is to help us better understand where we came from by mapping the asteroid — with Canadian tech — and collecting a sample to bring back to Earth.
This August (exact date unconfirmed), NASA plans to set OSIRIS-REx down on the surface for that collection.
On Dec. 12, the space agency selected a site for touchdown, nicknamed "Nightingale" located on the asteroid's northern hemisphere.
The spacecraft will depart in 2021, and return to Earth in 2023.
On the night of Aug. 11-12, one of the best and most active meteor showers of the year is set to take place under pretty good conditions.
After the moon washed out the 2019 Perseid shower, the 2020 one will be relatively moon-free.
The shower runs from July 17 to Aug. 26, but the peak night will be on the night of Aug. 11–12. The moon will rise just after 1 a.m. allowing those who aren't night owls to catch what could be upwards of 100 meteors in a dark-sky location under ideal conditions.
For space watchers, this may be considered the year of Mars.
Once again the Red Planet makes the list as it will make a close approach to Earth.
On Oct. 6, Mars will be just over 62 million km from Earth. Though that may not sound close, it is when you consider that, when Mars is at the opposite side of the sun, the two planets can be as far as 400 million km apart.
The great thing is, you will indeed notice a difference in brightness, likely beginning in August. On the night of closest approach, however, you will have to contend with an almost-full moon.
And, no. Mars will not be the size of the moon in our night sky.
Like the Perseid meteor shower of 2019, the Geminid meteor shower had a full moon that washed out all but the brightest meteors.
But good news: There will be no moon to spoil the 2020 Geminid shower-watching fun.
This is considered the most reliable meteor shower of the year. It can produce upward of 150 meteors per hour under ideal, dark-sky conditions at its peak. And you're almost guaranteed to see bright fireballs.
The shower peaks on the night of Dec. 13–14.
It's been eight years since Americans launched from home ground. Instead, they've been relying on the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to send Americans into space. But 2020 might see a U.S. return to human spaceflight.
After a successful uncrewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in March, SpaceX is slated to launch Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the second test flight of its Crew Dragon sometime in 2020. It will be the first time humans launch on the new spacecraft.
Boeing's Starliner is also supposed to conduct its second test launch sending Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann to the International Space Station. However, the schedule may be adjusted after the first uncrewed launch of Starliner failed to make it to the ISS on Dec. 20.
And then there's China, which plans to send its Chang'e 5 lander to the moon to collect a rock sample and return it to Earth. The last sample from the moon was taken by the Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976.
Finally, unfortunately this year isn't a good one for eclipses. There will be six eclipses in 2020, but nothing for Canadians to enjoy.
On Jan. 10 and June 5 there will be two penumbral eclipses, but unfortunately, it's difficult to see any darkening of the moon during this type of eclipse, where the moon passes through Earth's dimmer, outer shadow.
There will also be two solar eclipses. The first, on June 21, will be an annular eclipse where the moon doesn't quite cover the entire sun. It will pass through Africa and Asia.
And the one total solar eclipse of the year occurs on Dec. 14, but will only be visible in a small part of Chile and Argentina.